For yet another meaningless bilateral one-day international series, it hasn’t half been a good one. England have the star cricketers but New Zealand have levelled the series at 2-2 by using their knowledge of home conditions and scrapping with their traditional tenacity. The fifth international at Hagley Oval on Saturday will be a day game, a sell-out, and the decider.
England have always been poor at deciders in one-day cricket, so this is the chance for Eoin Morgan’s team to show they can rise to a big occasion, not sink. Anything like a one-day final has ended in under-performance and disappointment; anything like a World Cup knock-out match has been a disaster since they last won one in 1992; and when they've gone into the final game of a five-match ODI series, both at home and abroad, England have lost. All too far from their comfort zone.
England have this test of their character in front of them because they slipped on a banana skin at 267 for one in the 38th over in Dunedin. They did not respect the fact that, even in the T20 era, no batsman can hit boundaries from ball one. The nets on a ground are never the same pace as the pitch, so everyone needs a few balls to play himself in.
Another lesson was that England’s ODI batsmen, just like their Test batsmen, have to learn how to go on and make big hundreds. They excel at dashing 30s and 40s but even the 138 that Jonny Bairstow made, while packed with power-hitting, was insufficient because Ross Taylor raised the bar.
Bairstow gave Taylor due credit in retrospect, which Morgan as England’s captain had omitted to do. “The guy is chasing and gets 181 off 147 balls and wins the game on one leg. It was a fantastic innings and the way he struck the ball, especially given he wasn’t really running, was amazing,” Bairstow said, generously. “We re-group and it makes for a great series finale in Christchurch.”
“It’s huge,” Bairstow added, of the decider’s significance. “The way the guys reacted to situations over the last two ODI series helps. You can look back at the way we closed it out in Sydney and in Wellington, when the guys have been asked to stand up whether chasing down a total or closing it out with the ball. There have been guys who have stood up. If it’s not meant to be, we will learn from it and take it into the next series. The World Cup’s not tomorrow, or in two days, it’s in 16 months. This is part of the journey, it’s about getting it right for then.”
A possible flaw in Bairstow’s argument is that neither the Sydney nor Wellington ODIs this winter were deciders. It is when the pressure is intense - when one false step can lose everything - that England have yet to prove themselves, in almost half a century of ODIs. This is when sheep and goats are sorted - when some play even better than normal, others significantly worse.
It will make for an even better test of England’s mettle that the capacity of the Hagley Oval has been increased over the winter from 8,000 to 10,000 by building up the grass embankments. Hagley Park is one of the lovelier pieces of manmade earth, akin to Regent’s Park but with natural cricket pitches not artificial ones. Within six months of the first four ships of settlers landing in Christchurch in 1851 they were playing cricket in Hagley Park, desperate to re-create home.
The new cricket ground was the first of 12 “anchor projects” to be completed after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011; as a nice bit of recycling some of the seats, kitchens and players’ lockers that had just been installed in Lancaster Park were re-used. Next to the new pavilion is the old wooden one which served in 1864 when English cricketers first played in Christchurch, although it has been transferred from another part of the park. If it is an omen for the decider, George Parr’s team won, by an innings, even though they played 11 men and Canterbury 22.